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When Maternal Instinct Rules

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Bangladeshi journalist-novelist Anisul Hoque's Freedom's Mother couldn't have been timed better. The novel comes at a time when Bangladesh is commemorating its 40th anniversary of liberation. The novel harks back to the era when slogans proclaiming women's rights and feminism were unheard of in Bangladesh.

A fictional tale based on a real life instance, the book touches a chord at different levels. It unfolds Safia Begum's agony. One can't help but empathise with her as each layer of emotion unfolds. What follows is a story of pain and pathos, interwoven with political turmoil. Most appropriately titled Freedom's Mother, it probably refers Safia Begum and her son Azad.

The novel begins with Safia Begum's death. The cryptic notes of her death gradually take the readers through the sedimentary layers of family history. Safia is introduced to readers as an accomplished homemaker who carried the household on her diminutive frame. The narrative comes through in flashes, as readers leaf through life at Eskaton Mansion, home to her and her husband Yunus Chowdhury. The author is adept in the ability to go back and forth and yet retain a thread of continuity. Just as you soak in the grandeur of the Mansion, it's moves on to the emptiness in Begum's life, which is a web of poverty. Though loneliness is palpable in her fractured marriage, Begum holds fort. In her refusal to return to her husband's home, Begum shatters social convention.

All through romance is brief, whether it is Yunus Chowdhury with his spouse Safia Begum or inter-generational love between Azad and Millie. In the former, Safia Begum walked out of the marriage when Chowdhury married for the second time. As for Azad and Millie, their romance is short lived, thanks to Millie's uncle's interference. Nevertheless, the author has used these fleeting relationships to determine the course of the novel.

Azad is an only child pushed into spotlight. Just when Begum reaches a satisfying old age, having succeeded in raising Azad single handedly, he surrenders to call of the nation. Weariness begins to show in the near-normal world, as places such as the Dhanmandi art gallery teach people to use explosives. As conflict spread, there are references to pineapple (read here as hand grenade). The novel in its course touches a sore spot, as Begum spends 14 years trying to locate Azad. Finally, she comes to terms with the fact that her missing son, later caught by the Pakistani army is dead.

Freedom is the underlying theme of Hoque's novel. Several books have been written on freedom struggle and the unknown sacrifices made by innocent people. However, Freedom's Mother stands out. History we all know becomes interesting when it is fictionalised. This is what Hoque has succeeded in doing.

Hoque has crafted a tender, gripping story, where the canvas of life is portrayed with a mass appeal. Take the case of Begum. Any wife whose husband has strayed away can relate to Begum's persistence. The mother's angst in search of her long gone son appeals to anyone whose loved ones become martyrs. There are touching references to Begum who raised Azad on meager funds.

The author has gone to great lengths to narrate every instance in such detail, you almost feel as if you were present. It could be a mild reference to the magical afternoon or the tense curfew situation. Rich imagery combined with short, hard-hitting sentences convey a sense ofpolitical urgency.

Freedom's Mother is the English translation of the Bengali novel Maa,which is already a best-seller and is in its 46th edition. Usually a translated version loses its essence. This novel is an exception, it seems as it is a soul-stirring, thought-provoking story.